Day 6 in San Francisco: Food Truck Harbour

Given the wealth of City Guide tour options available, we had wanted to fit at least one more in – I was hoping the second go-around might erase the disappointment of our Chinatown experience. We ended up choosing the City Scapes and Public Places tour, mostly because the meeting location was only a few blocks away from our hotel.

Thankfully, our guide Paul seemed better informed than our previous escort, but as a whole, the tour still seemed less packed with information than the walks we partook in both New York and DC.

It was really interesting to learn about POPOS, however: privately-owned, public open spaces. It is specified in San Francisco’s building code that the trade-off for the construction of a high-rise building is the creation of some sort of usable public space on the land – whether that is a square, a balcony, or park.

San Francisco

Atop the Crocker Galleria

In the two hours, we toured nearly a dozen of the spaces (there are sixty all together in San Francisco). Some of them, such as the one located on the fifteenth floor of a building, were like little hidden gems, that only those “in the know” would be cognizant of (you can check out a map here).

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The gem at 343 Sansome Street

San Francisco

The view

There were others – such as the redwood park (which was my personal favourite of the bunch), that could easily be mistaken to simply be a green space amidst towers.

San Francisco

Redwood Park

San Francisco

Water feature

San Francisco

Life imitates art

Some of the POPOS, such as the greenhouse in Citigroup Centre, featured seating, as well as food service – fantastic for the business crowd at lunch.

The only downside to the open spaces, however, is that the regulations specify that POPOS only need to be accessible during weekday business hours – so anyone wishing to take advantage of them in the evenings or weekends are out of luck (we tried to access Citigroup Centre on a Saturday, but the gates were locked up tight).

During the tour, we had passed by the San Buena Taco Truck parked on the street. Given that it was the first food truck we had stumbled upon in San Francisco, we made sure to remember where it was so we could hit it up for lunch.

San Buena

San Buena Taco Truck

The line was steady, and given it was made up mostly of the area’s office workers, we knew we had probably made a good choice. The menu included burritos, tacos and tortas, but from the orders made around us, we knew a burrito was the way to go.

San Buena

Mack hearts burritos

For just $7, each of us received a wrap absolutely packed with chicken (though carnitas and beef were meat options as well). It had been expertly bound – the perfect kind of street food – and with moist, flavourful chicken interspersed with beans, rice and heat to taste – it was without a doubt the best thing we ate in San Francisco.

The only thing I really remember from my previous visit to San Francisco was walking across the Golden Gate Bridge with my family, but it isn’t exactly a pleasant memory. It had been one of those drizzly, blustery days, cold and miserable for any tourist, but particularly for us, given the night before, we had been in the +40 climes of Asia. Fortunately, the weather on the day that Mack and I chose to visit the bridge was perfect, and did much to ensure my future associations with the Golden Gate were positive ones.

Golden Gate Bridge

Misty, but bright

A quick bus ride got us to the San Francisco side of the bridge. The forty-minute windswept walk across yielded unparalleled views of the city and the activities in the bay.

Golden Gate Bridge

Mack and the city

Golden Gate Bridge

Queen of the bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

The barges just kept on cominng

The traffic on the bridge was also a little unbelievable – the cars did not stop flowing. It was on that day that we christened our version of Punch Buggy – Punch Prius! At some point we had to stop counting because it was getting ridiculous.

Golden Gate Bridge

The bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

A reminder

We walked the length back to the San Francisco side, and hopped on a bus that took us closer to the city centre. The line terminated at Fort Mason, where we were directed by the driver to transfer to a different bus. Given it was already the dinner hour, the fact that there was a Safeway at the terminal seemed to be a blessing. We picked up some food and headed to the park for a picnic supper, a relaxing way to refuel and rest our weary feet.

Salad

Dinner of champions

Residents were out in full force, enjoying the setting sun as we were. And like so many other parts of the city, it was picturesque without even trying.

Marina

The marina

Satisfied, before heading back to the hotel, we thought we should explore the area. Peeking over the hill side drop, we encountered a gaggle of people down below in the Fort Mason parking lot – what was going on?

Off The Grid

So many people!

It turned out we had stumbled upon the first Off the Grid, a “roaming mobile food extravaganza.” This was the largest of their weekly events, and sees thirty food trucks gather alongside a full-service bar and music.

Off The Grid

Music amongst the madness

That night, the twenty food trucks offered food ranging from cupcakes to empanadas to ramen. But it was challenging to even browse the offerings – the line-ups were massive (and really, too large for the space), with the longest gathering centered around Chairman Bao, a truck offering, among other things, pork belly buns.

Off The Grid

Just some of the food trucks

Off The Grid

Empanada stand

Off The Grid

The line at Chairman Bao

It was really unfortunate that we had already eaten our meal – what better way to sample food trucks than at such an event? We made room for a few things though – a trio of dumplings we purchased for $2 were hand-rolled in the tent, and were very tasty.

Off The Grid

Dumplings!

I was also swayed into buying a dulce de leche creme brulee. It was okay, but not worth the $5.

Off The Grid

Creme brulee

Though we didn’t eat much, Off the Grid was amazing to see. Everyone there was just so darn excited about food, and that energy was contagious. It’s crazy to imagine that something like that happens on a weekly basis, but in a city like San Francisco, food trucks aren’t a fad, but a core of their food culture. Look for it if you’re travelling to SF!

Off The Grid

Off the Grid

We ended our evening back on a bus, ready for a good night’s sleep at the hotel. Gearing up for a Saturday trip to the Ferry Market, we would need it.

Day 5 in San Francisco: “Top Chef” Thursday

Things we loved in San Francisco:

Two Buck Chuck (Seriously. Wine for $2 a bottle in North America?)

Bristol Farms

Consumer warning labels in stores (how’s that for awareness?)

Scramble crosswalks (coming soon to Edmonton)

Something else we loved? Sleeping in. We decided to give ourselves the benefit of a late start on day 5, as we felt recovery was in order after two consecutive early mornings.

The day as a whole was a lazy one – without any concrete plans besides a dinner reservation and a late show, it felt freeing to be able to wander without direction. So after grabbing a coffee from Peet’s, we spent the morning shopping at Union Square.

San Francisco

Union Square

It was easy to get used to that kind of shopping experience – stores densely packed together, all accessible from street-level, with crosswalks at every block. Sure, some of the stores we visited have locations in Edmonton also, but only locked inside a mall or car-driven complex.

San Francisco

Pedestrian-friendly shopping

We eventually walked over to the Yerba Buena Gardens, which, on first glance, appeared to be the city’s outdoor bedroom. We lost count of the number of people idling on the grass, enjoying the shade and the soothing sound of the water features.

Yerba Buena

Yerba Buena Gardens

Yerba Buena

Waterfall

I had read about there being a century old carousel at the Gardens, and, like my giddy stint at the Musee, I couldn’t pass up a visit.

Zeum Carousel

Carousel!

Mack initially wasn’t as keen on reverting back to his childhood, but even he enjoyed circling the wooden animals to select his steed. And at only $3 for two rides, it was well worth it!

Zeum Carousel

Whee!

Zeum Carousel

Mack gets in the spirit of things

I knew we were near ‘Witchcraft, one of Tom Collichio’s casual sandwich outposts, and given we were to later dine at another restaurant connected to the Top Chef series, it just seemed fitting to stop there for lunch.

'wichcraft

Interior

At 2pm, we found the restaurant nearly empty – perhaps we just missed the lunch rush? ‘Witchcraft wasn’t in the most inspiring location (it faces a parkade), but the interior definitely tried to make up for it. We loved the floor-to-ceiling windows, the second floor loft-style seating, and the stylish prints featuring antique kitchen equipment.

'wichcraft

Mack

From what I had read about the restaurant though, I really thought the menu would grab me. But somehow, the sandwich combinations didn’t excite me at all. I ended up with the grilled cheese sandwich and soup of the day, while Mack chose the BLT. Our lunch for two (with one drink) cost $23.

My grilled cheese was good (solid bread foundation, nice combination of cheeses), but the soup was better (great texture and depth). Mack liked the BLT well enough (especially the bacon), but thought the tomato overpowered everything.

'wichcraft

Grilled cheese and soup

'wichcraft

BLT

The side of Tim’s Chips ended up being our favourite part of the meal – kettle-style, they were just the right thickness to offer both a satisfying crunch and a rounded flavour from the frying oil. Best of all, they didn’t have any additives.

'wichcraft

Tim’s Chips

It’s something to be said when the package of chips stands out the most – so all told, ‘Witchcraft was a bit underwhelming for both of us.

A brief sojourn back to the hotel had us ready for our trip’s most anticipated meal. While watching the second season of Top Chef Masters, both Mack and I fell head over heels for Chef Hubert Keller. His personality and modest nature outshone his competitors: where others put ego first, Chef Keller always seemed to let his food speak for itself. So we knew a visit to SF wouldn’t be complete without reservations to Fleur de Lys.

The restaurant was just a ten minute walk from our hotel, allowing us to build up an appetite for the multi-course meal. When we arrived, we were whisked inside a sumptuous room, lined with curtains and complete with a tented ceiling. Most of the tables were arranged like streetside Parisian cafes – facing inwards instead of towards one another. It really felt like we had stepped into another world.

Unlike our experience at Gramercy Tavern in New York a few years back, when I was afraid to even take out my camera, it didn’t seem out of place at Fleur de Lys. Most of the diners were our age, and nearly all of them were snapping pictures of their experience. Also, through the curtains, I spotted a television set tuned to Food Network – of all shows, Top Chef Masters was on!

We chose the $82/person 4 course meal, which of course, with wine, was much more than that. Given that we were provided with several options for each course (starter, seafood, meat, dessert), the price seemed reasonable.

The vegetable ragout with truffle oil was a bit underwhelming to me, though the egg was poached very nicely. Mack enjoyed his Maryland soft shell crab, but had a bit of trouble determining how best to eat it, given the crab had been deep fried whole.

Fleur de lys

Vegetable ragout

Fleur de lys

Maryland soft shell crab

My salmon (sustainably raised, of course) was well cooked, and I loved the accompanying broccolini. The dish also marked my first ever encounter with porcini flan, and I have to say, I quite enjoyed the savoury version. Mack’s dish of prawns ended up being just a singular prawn, albeit one that was pretty tasty, and one that he enjoyed more as it was served alongside pork belly.

Fleur de lys

Sustainably raised salmon

Wild jumbo prawn with brioche crust

The duck, moist as ever, was a play on duck l’orange, served with fresh orange segments. I wasn’t a fan of the spetzle though – they were bland. Mack equally enjoyed his filet mignon, though not surprisingly, he devoured the lobster truffled mac & cheese (stuffed into a brioche bun!) first.

Fleur de lys

Muscovy duck breast, grenadine pickled onions

Seared filet mignon

We both absolutely adored the dessert course. My chocolate souffle was easily worth the additional $6 charge, light and fluffy on top with a satisfying and rich centre. Mack’s plate was a whimsical play on burger, fries and shake, with slices of kiwi standing in for pickles.

Fleur de lys

Chocolate souffle

Fleur de lys

Fleurburger

The restaurant saved the best part for last – towards the end of our meal, Chef Keller came out to meet all the diners! I’m pretty sure everyone in the room knew who he was, but he still made sure to introduce himself at each table, “Hello, I’m the chef here”. Mack didn’t want to wash his hands afterwards. #fanboy

Mack, Sharon, Hubert Keller

With Chef Keller

Our dinner at Fleur de Lys was a memorable experience, though only partially because of the food. We were so happy to have met Chef Keller!

We didn’t plan it that way, but the 19th annual San Francisco Fringe Festival happened to be running the same week we were there. Of course, we had to take in at least one show.

The fact that Edmonton is the home of the second largest Fringe Festival in the world is so often bandied about that I think Edmontonians take it for granted. At least, I know I do. So it was a shock to me that San Francisco, an enviable city in so many ways, could not even hold a candle to our fabulous theatre festival.

With just three venues and a total of 42 shows, the scale of the SF Fringe was much, much smaller than Edmonton’s Fringe. Show times were also confined to evenings on weekdays and the venues weren’t clearly marked. It also probably didn’t help that their theatre district was in the shadiest part of the city that we’d come across thus far (the aforementioned neighbourhood that we were warned by hotel staff not to walk through).

The biggest difference, however, was the lack of a festival atmosphere. The festival grounds are one of the biggest reasons Edmonton’s Fringe is the place to be in August. The buskers, the food, the music and the activities are all such an integral part of the Fringe now that it is difficult to consider what it would be like without it.

We chose Star Crossed Love based on the description on the website, and had pre-purchased our tickets online (just in case). There really was no need – granted, it was a 10:30pm show on a Thursday night, but for a supposed “pick of the Fringe”, the dozen people in the audience was disappointing, to say the least.

San Francisco Fringe

Star Crossed Love

The premise of the theatre company is the showcase of badly written scripts. That is to say, all of their productions are culled from rejected Hollywood screenplays, performed on stage verbatim. For example, any time a character nodded, the actors would nod in exaggerated fashion. As you can guess, some of the actions got old fast, but others, including “lovers a long time” (where the couple looked to be bored of one another) were amusing.

The script itself was indeed awful – an over-the-top, implausible, rags-to-riches tale where the heroine ends the show up on stage, accepting an Oscar. But wasn’t as funny as it could have been, and for that reason, wasn’t that entertaining. We did want to commend the actors though – they really committed to the roles, and tried their best to wring every bit of unintentional humour from it.

We made our way back through the Tenderloin and retired to our hotel for the night. On to the next day!

Day 4 in San Francisco: Touring Wine Country

Though we wanted to explore some of the Bay area’s wineries, we wanted to avoid renting a car if at all possible – besides taking advantage of public transportation, it would ensure we wouldn’t have to worry about driving after one too many glasses of wine. And, well, our wine palates are not exactly finely tuned, so neither of us were that particular about which wineries to hit. Mack took on the task of researching group tour possibilities.

In his exploration of Napa Valley shuttles, he uncovered a plethora of terrible websites (sure, they may not be directly connected to the tech world, but it was a little ironic given its proximity to the start-up capital of North America). Most seats were priced in the $75 to $100 range, only some of which were “all inclusive” of entry fees and tastings. We eventually settled on the Wine Country Tour Shuttle, which was competitively priced, but more importantly, would pick us up from the centrally-located Ferry Building.

Wine Country Tour

Wine Country Tours (and Tom!)

We met up with our driver and tour guide Tom at 8:30 that morning, and all 38 of us boarded a comfortable bus for the journey. Our fellow passengers spanned age and countries of origin – some were from as far away as South Africa and Switzerland. Tom, a retired schoolteacher, was a fantastic guide, affable, knowledgeable, but light in his delivery. Though not in the same league, after a poor experience with an incompetent Contiki guide in Europe, I knew that the leader would make or break the excursion, so it was particularly comforting to be in good hands.

Our only complaint about the tour was why the organizers didn’t make it an all inclusive tour. I’m certain adding even $25 to the overall price that would help cover entry to and tastings at the first winery wouldn’t have deterred anyone from selecting this company. It just seemed silly that after booking the tickets online that we had to have cash on hand at all for something other than wine purchases.

Besides that, we had a lovely time. Our first stop was V. Sattui, which, curiously, boasts the only deli in Napa Valley (even more curious was the fact that they kept reciting this fact as if it was the biggest selling point of V. Sattui). We had read online that goods in the deli were quite expensive, so being the “clever” travellers we were, we thought to kill two birds with one stone by bringing along the tasting pack we had purchased the day before at Cowgirl Creamery (and thus having the perfect excuse to try their cheese).

V. Sattui

V. Sattui

Well, it turns out our planning was unnecessary, given the tour provided us each with a $10 credit to spend in the deli. It did bolster our lunch offerings, however, and meant we were able to round out our meal with meat and bread as well. Being a beautiful California day, it was an afternoon made for an outdoor picnic.

V. Sattui

The spread

After lunch, we headed to the tasting room, where we had to jostle for a spot at the counter. Though the tasting fee wasn’t included with the tour, it was a decent deal – 5 samples for $5. We ended up picking up a bottle of Gamay Rouge – V. Sattui wines aren’t available in stores, and it’s rare that Mack and I find a red that we both like.

V. Sattui

Tasting room

Samples

Our second stop was probably my favourite of our entire tour, even if the ambassador of Domaine Chandon had the air of a used car salesman – I had to give it to him, the man knew how to make a show of opening pressured bottles.

Domaine Chandon

Ever the showman

Domaine Chandon is known for its sparkling wines, of which we were able to try three. We bought a small bottle of Classic Brut to remember the winery in all its lush, green glory.

Domaine Chandon

Cheers!

Domaine, with its garden-lined paths was what I thought most of Napa would look like. In actuality, the vineyards actually looked quite bleak – sure, the vines themselves were green, but driving past large segments of yellowed grass between wineries that had seen better days, it was a visual reminder of California’s dependence on irrigation.

Domaine Chandon

The vines at Domaine Chandon

Franciscan was our third stop, notable for its bore of a guide, but also for the freedom we had to taste grapes fresh off the vine. It was also the winery with the priciest bottles (in the $60 range), which meant our hands stayed in our pockets.

Franciscan

Franciscan

Franciscan

Mmm…grapes

We also had to take an obligatory photo on the Rutherford Bench – which actually refers not to a literal bench, but the area that Franciscan falls in that is ideal for grape production.

Franciscan

The “Rutherford Bench”

Our last stop was the Whitehall Lane Winery, which helped demonstrate why the Wine Country Tour Shuttle was so popular – it showcased different aspects of the wine-making process, from grape to aging. At Whitehall, we were ushered into the production facility, which included some time in their enormous barrel chilling space, filled from floor to ceiling with 1100 barrels.

Whitehall Lane

So many barrels!

After too many wine samples (with a constant longing for accompanying bread or cheese), our way back to San Francisco was a welcome one – a breezy, refreshing ferry ride from Vallejo across the Bay.

San Francisco

Bye, Vallejo!

Dinner wasn’t gourmet, and in fact, the grease probably helped with the detox. We crawled back to the Westfield Mall, and dined on overstuffed pizza ($4.99) from Bristol Farms. I am still amazed Mack managed to make his way through his meat lover’s monstrosity.

Bristol Farms

More meat than you should handle

What would day 5 have in store for us? Well, a Top Chef Masters sighting for starters!

Day 3 in San Francisco: The Land of Queues

Given that tourism is San Francisco’s number one industry, it’s expected that line-ups are rampant at all major attractions. On day three of our trip however, it was also a theme at most of our dining choices – not surprising given the city’s reputation of good food.

The day started off quite overcast, threatening rain. But nothing would stop us from completing our first mission that day: eating a hearty breakfast. Knowing there was no food service at Alcatraz, I thought it would be best to fill up before heading off to the island, and everything pointed to Mama’s on Washington Square.

The plan was to arrive right when the café opened at 8, but though we hoofed it, we found that a line of a half dozen hungry patrons had already formed outside the restaurant at 8:20am (darn those ‘Friscans and their early starts!).

Mama's on Washington Square

The line-up when we left

The restaurant had an odd set-up that eliminated the need for waiters – it was efficient but cruel. Instead of ordering after being seated, Mama’s is set-up so that diners line up alongside their open kitchen, watching the line cooks at the flat top and the baker at his station. It was hard enough not to salivate, let alone quell hunger pangs.

Mama's on Washington Square

The baker at work

After about a half hour, we made it to the head of the line, placed our order with the cashier, and were led to a cozy table. In no time, after two sips of the disastrously bad coffee (really, the only poor thing about Mama’s) our food was brought to us, piping hot.

Mama's on Washington Square

Western Italian omelette

My Western Italian omelette ($10.50) was packed with roasted tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and pancetta (which was unfortunately not crispy). The eggs were noticeably fluffy though, and the portion extremely generous. The potatoes were also well-prepared. Mack enjoyed his eggs benedict with roasted tomatoes ($10.50) – difficult not to when it is served with crackly bacon.

Mama's on Washington Square

Eggs benedict

Service was warm (the servers made sure to wish those leaving with a “thank you”, even as they bustled to clean tables and seat other parties. Be sure to check it out if you’re looking for a good brunch in San Francisco!

Then we were off to Pier 33, to hop on a ferry to cruise to the cursed, storied prison. We had pre-purchased tickets on the website, but it turned out on that gloomy day that advanced planning wasn’t necessary.

Though only five minutes away from Fisherman’s Wharf, it seemed like a world away – instead of a carnival atmosphere, it felt muted and bleak (the miserable weather didn’t help much either). Waiting for our turn on the ferry also felt a bit like herding cats, between the barricades, divided line-ups and stern National Park staff.

San Francisco

Bye, mainland!

After a quick but rocky fifteen minute cruise, we were there. Alcatraz is larger than life, immortalized on the silver screen, and with more myths than you can shake a stick at.

Alcatraz

Cell tiers

And yet, Alcatraz held its own during our visit. I think it mostly had to do with the audio tour – voices of former inmates, prison staff and families who lived on the island guiding us through the building, explaining the day-to-day grind, the isolation wards, the insurgent movements. The background noises as each scene was being described – the tinkering in the lunch room, the shouts in the cell blocks – coupled with the physicality of walking through the spaces, really made the history come alive.

Alcatraz

Shower area

Alcatraz

A single cell

Alcatraz

Mack behind bars

Alcatraz

Kitchen (with shadows indicating where sharp objects should go so it was easy to know if something was missing)

The only tickets that had been sold out for weeks were for the night tours. After our day trip, I was glad we didn’t have the chance to visit after dark – I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to handle the chills.

Alcatraz

Burned out warden’s residence

Alcatraz

Yes, it was that windy

Back on the mainland, Mack was already anticipating our first taste of In-N-Out Burger, the famed west coast fast food chain. There is much to admire about In-N-Out: they pay staff a living wage and they are committed to using only fresh ingredients (never frozen beef, potatoes they peel in-store).

Our order of two combos was speedily prepared (they had separate order and pick-up counters), and cost only moderately more than their quick-serve counterparts ($13). The meal looked appealing, and tasted okay, but I couldn’t see what the hype was about – the burger was on the greasy side, and though Mack liked the fact that you could salt the fries on your own accord, he still preferred McDonald’s fries.

In-N-Out

Our meal

Coit Tower was next on our agenda, another tourist destination within walking distance of Pier 39. Another fairly steep hill meant we almost immediately worked off the grease consumed at lunch, but I didn’t mind it – I loved any opportunity to explore the residential neighbourhoods, fascinated by the lack of space between houses, and the steep garage gradients.

Coit Tower

Coit Tower

Coit Tower stands 210 feet tall. The price of the elevator ride to the top was $5, operated by a young man who joked that he took the vertical route 1264 times a day. Though not the highest structure in the city, it did provide a panoramic view, and perhaps more interestingly, a peek of some of the rooftop luxuries afforded in a city with a mild climate – pools, gardens, patios and the like.

Coit Tower

Downtown SF

Coit Tower

Piers and the Bay Bridge

We also discovered just how small the world is – we ran into another Edmonton couple at the top, who were vacationing in SF as a part of their honeymoon.

Coit Tower

Thanks to Allison for taking this photo!

At the base of the Tower are beautiful murals, depicting various scenes of life. I liked this one:

Coit Tower

Orange picking!

On our way to the Embarcadero, we stumbled across the Filbert Steps. It was one of my favourite discoveries, and to me, more of a must-see than Lombard Street.

Filbert Steps

More green than your eye can see

Filbert Steps

Flowers

It was gorgeous – lush, bursting with flora and fauna, it felt like we were taking a tour of someone’s private garden. Similar to Lombard though, residential houses lined the tiered levels – it still strikes me as peculiar to have a tourist attraction on your doorstep.

Filbert Steps

Tiered garden

Filbert Steps

People live here!

We made our way down the stairs, and to the Ferry Building. We knew we would be back to this hub of produce, food and drink again, but I had wanted to see it on a sans-farmers’ market day.

Most of the shops were near closing, so we didn’t have much time to browse. After picking up a pound of coffee from Blue Bottle, we swung by Cowgirl Creamery and picked up a $20 tourist pack of cheese. It included three varieties and a cheese knife, which we thought would be perfect to take along with us for lunch during our winery tour the next day.

Ferry Building

Cowgirl Creamery

Just before they closed their gates, we ducked into Boccolone for their infamous “meat in a cup” salumi cone ($3.50).

Ferry Building

Salumi cone from Boccolone

For dinner, we had decided upon The Slanted Door, a friend’s recommendation – it is a restaurant known for its modern take on Vietnamese food, and sourcing of local products and ecologically-farmed meat. We didn’t have reservations, but given it was a Tuesday, we didn’t think we’d have any problem getting in. We were wrong.

The dining room was full for the evening, and the lounge was packed. Though seats were available in the lounge, we were told only an abbreviated menu would be available to us there – in order to access the full menu, we’d have to snag a seat at the coveted bar (something that was a bit comical to us, since the bar was literally two steps away). The lounge servers were great though – they took pity on us and offered us tips on how to get seats at the bar – and thankfully, after some hovering, we were successful.

Service was excellent – our bartender/server was friendly and easygoing, and was a touchstone of calm in the frenzied restaurant (over the course of the evening, the lounge became standing room only, with a group of patrons immediately behind us trying to have a conversation over the din).

The Slanted Door

Slanted Door served me the best milk tea I’ve ever had

Our friend had recommended the daikon rice cakes ($12), something I probably wouldn’t have ordered on my own. I’m glad we did – the texture was fantastic, browned and crispy on the outside, with an almost fluffy interior. And I’m not usually a fan of daikon, so props to the chef!

The Slanted Door

Daikon rice cakes with shiitake mushrooms and shallots

The cellophane noodles with green onion and Dungeness crab meat ($18) was portioned well. The noodles were diner friendly, cut short for easy consumption, and the dish as a whole was perfectly seasoned.

The Slanted Door

Cellophane noodles with crab and green onion

I had read much online about the shaking beef ($32), a Vietnamese dish made from marinated filet mignon seared at very high heat. The meat, served with watercress, red onions and lime sauce, had a firm crust, but was nice and tender inside. Though we weren’t sure it was the showstopper it was meant to be, we did enjoy it.

The Slanted Door

Shaking beef

It’s worth noting that the receipt had a handy tip breakdown, listing amounts for 15% and 18% gratuities, based on our cheque total.

While Slanted Door was definitely a made-in-San Francisco experience, I’d recommend a reservation for a more leisurely dining experience.

San Francisco

Goodnight, San Francisco!

After dinner, we retired to our hotel, gearing up for a full day of wine.

Day 2 in San Francisco: Fruitful Wanderings

When travelling, I have a tendency to try and plan out our days as much as possible. In the case of San Francisco however, I didn’t have much time to do so (I was still frantically reading guidebooks on the plane ride over). But because we had ten glorious days to spend in the Bay area, having a lack of itineraries actually worked out quite well – day two was a great example of that.

We started our day on a walking tour, something that has become a bit of a tradition on each of our last few trips. I was happy to find out that San Francisco is home to a bonanza of complimentary tours: San Francisco City Guides is a non-profit organization that offers over thirty different walks each month that span all areas of interest, for free (though donations are gratefully accepted).

We decided to start in Chinatown, given our hotel’s proximity to the neighbourhood. Our group of over thirty people trailed a guide for two hours or so, and though we were hoping it would get better along the way, we were disappointed.

Chinatown

Chinatown

Sure, we did learn some history (our guide pointed out some tiny windows that captive prostitutes would have used to solicit customers), and he did lead us through a live seafood and poultry shop that we probably would not have stepped foot in on our own, but having prefaced his tour with not wanting to perpetuate stereotypes, he seemed to create some of his own (among other things, he claimed that all Chinese, even those with several generations of American ancestors, were fluent in Chinese).

Chinatown

Such narrow alleys

Chinatown

Colourful lanterns

ChinatownChinatown

Not pets

One of the tour stops was the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, which was on our “to visit” list anyway. It was rather underwhelming as well – dim, and set-up almost like a front with two women forming the v-shaped cookies out by hand, the owner seemed to be more annoyed with visitors than anything else, which just seemed counterintuitive given tourists probably made up most of his business. We left with a few bags of cookies, and also the following photo which cost us 50 cents to take.

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company

Inside the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company

The guide did make one impression – he said that in the past, restaurants in Chinatown would build their restaurants on the ground floor so that customers would be able to “conduct their own health inspections” as they walked past to the seating area on the upper floors. The only relic left from this era of dining was Sam Wo, and since it was lunch time anyway, we thought it was a good choice as any.

Sam Wo

Sam Wo

The food was definitely westernized, but was decent (and really, for $15, pretty darn cheap). The broccoli was the better dish, nicely cooked and coated in a savoury sauce.

Sam Wo

Broccoli and beef, and yang zhou fried rice

Satisfied, we decided to continue on to Fisherman’s Wharf (aka Tourist Mecca).

Fisherman's Wharf

The Wharf

The Wharf/Pier 39 turned out to be a great place to wander, especially on a hot day – the cool breeze off the water was refreshingly welcome.

Pier 39

Mack with Alcatraz in the background

Pier 39

I could have easily spent the afternoon watching the sea lions belch and flop

We did some browsing (it was hard to imagine the shops pre-tourist days – what did they sell if not t-shirts, postcards and cameras?), and eventually ended up at Ghirardelli Square.

Fisherman's Wharf

Segway tours

After sampling free chocolate (the pumpkin spice chocolate tasted exactly like a pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks), we skipped the crazy line up at the Ghirardelli ice cream bar in favour of a treat from Kara’s Cupcakes.

It’s a lovely pink store, with the pricey $3.25 cupcake justified by Kara’s dedication to using local ingredients. My Fleur de Sel cupcake was rich, but the salty-sweet combination is slowly growing on me, and better yet, it had the perfect icing-to-cake ratio. Mack enjoyed Kara’s Carrot, pointing out that the cake was studded with raisins, and liked the cream cheese icing.

Fisherman's Wharf

Cupcakes

Being an adult fan of Chuck E Cheese, it was no surprise our next stop was the Musee Mechanique on Pier 45 (something I had read about in one of the guides).

Musee Mecanique

A different kind of football

The Musee Mechanique is an interactive celebration of antique arcade machines and mechanically operated musical instruments – instead of viewing the machines from behind a rope or pane of glass, you could actually play them!

Musee Mecanique

Mack tried twice, but couldn’t beat the machine

I had such a blast! And given most machines cost a quarter to play, it was probably some of the cheapest fun we had in San Francisco (and one of my favourite destinations overall).

Musee Mecanique

Aim and fire!

Back on the tourist path, we stepped inside Boudin Bakery, where San Francisco sourdough was invented. They had quite the little empire – a bakery, grocery/gift shop, and a formal restaurant. I loved the moving baskets whizzing overhead, “delivering” bread to the counters.

I had a good time just browsing the pretty bottles of olive oils and vinegars and marvelling at their novelty loaves shaped like crabs, turtles and teddy bears.

Boudin

Bread, glorious bread!

We settled on a sourdough baguette ($2.69), just to get a taste of something made with the same wild yeast from 150 years prior. The bread was distinctly sour (too sour for our palates, anyway), but we loved the crackly crust.

Boudin

I love me some bread

All the bread in the world couldn’t have prepared us for the “hill of death” though (seriously, if it wasn’t paved, it would have been a cliff of magnificent proportions), which we chose to walk up to reach Lombard Street.

San Francisco

Mack smiles through the burn

Lombard Street has the distinction of being the “crookedest street in the world”, with eight hairpin turns. Being the tourist destination it is, with people walking down either side, or driving through it, Mack and I could hardly believe it was a residential street – who would want to live with gawkers constantly in your front yard?

Crooked Street

Lombard Street

Like visiting Lombard, riding a streetcar in San Francisco is another tourist must, so we thought we’d check it off early, and hopped on one to take us up the rest of Powell. It was standing room only, and rather uncomfortable with the jolting stops and sardine spacing inside the car. We did love that the streetcar had complete right of way though – it would stop right in the middle of intersections, immune to traffic laws.

Fisherman's Wharf

Streetcar

We hopped off the streetcar at Union Square (a five minute walk from our hotel), and spent the rest of the evening exploring Westfield Shopping Centre. They had an intense food court (both in terms of options and decor) as well as a Bristol Farms (similar to Whole Foods). We didn’t have plans for dinner, so the cafeteria seemed like a good choice as any. And how could you not order from a place called Jody Maroni’s Sausage Kingdom?

I had the 100% Kobe beef wiener ($6.89) – it was unbelievably juicy, but would have been enhanced with some caramelized onions. The onion bun was a great choice. Mack’s chili dog ($4.69) was piping hot, but he would have appreciated a thicker ‘dog.

San Francisco

Hot dogs from Jody Maroni

Since we scrimped on dinner, we treated ourselves to dessert – cream puffs ($2.50)  from Beard Papa. The vanilla custard filling was tasty (and seemed to be made with real vanilla beans), and the pastry shell was fresh, but to me, was nothing special. Mack liked his chocolate cream puff a little more than I did.

San Francisco

Beard Papa cream puff

We returned to our hotel, ready to rest our feet, as day 3 would see us behind bars – in Alcatraz!

Day 1 in San Francisco: The Lay of the Land

I had great intentions to blog about San Francisco earlier to the date of our actual trip (September 2010), but procrastination got in the way. Still, better late than never – writing about travels and browsing through old photos always seems like the best way to relive a trip. Perhaps it will make you long for the hills of San Francisco too!

I still don’t remember how the decision of San Francisco as our next vacation destination came about. I had been to SF once before for two days – on the return leg of my family’s journey back to North America after three weeks in the equatorial climes of southeast Asia. It’s safe to say I don’t remember much, save crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and never really acclimatizing to the thirty degree temperature change. Mack, on the other, hand, had never been to San Francisco, in spite of its hub of all things tech (and most notably, is the location of Twitter’s offices).

So in early September, we were off for a ten day trip to San Francisco, a city known for its food, liberal tendencies and a bridge.

At the airport, we hopped on the super-convenient BART train that would lead to a stop about two blocks from our accommodation. Two different people had recommended Hotel Triton to us, part of the Kimpton Hotel chain.

San Francisco

The Triton duckie!

More than any other hotel we’ve ever stayed in, Hotel Triton felt like home. The staff were friendly, always ready with a “welcome back” upon our return,  but mostly, it was the small things – warm chocolate chip cookies available in the lobby every afternoon, free wine every evening, the resident dog Romeo (the concierge’s companion). Or, as a new member of their loyalty program, they offered us a free $10 minibar credit upon check-in.

Kimpton

Our SF home

The location was also hard to beat – right across from the Chinatown Gates, Hotel Triton was five minutes from Union Square and fifteen minutes from the Ferry Building. And whatever we couldn’t walk to, it was just as easy to hop on the BART or grab a bus. I’d recommend Hotel Triton in a heartbeat – and wouldn’t hesitate to stay there again.

Hotel Triton is right in the thick of things

We dropped off our luggage and went in search of lunch. We asked the front desk staff for walking directions to the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market, but they recommended we take the BART instead – apparently, it wasn’t safe to walk (it was the Tenderloin district they were weary of, but we ended up walking through it a few days later anyway, after dark no less, without incident).

Set up outdoors at UN Plaza, the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market wasn’t the largest we would encounter in San Francisco, but it was definitely meant for food shoppers. With no crafts in sight, it was a wonderful introduction to the area’s seasonal fare.

Heart of the City Farmers' Market

Heart of the City Farmers’ Market

Seafood and fresh eggs were available, and though there were a handful of prepared food vendors (spreads, Indian food, kettle corn, baked goods), the focus was undoubtedly on produce. What surprised me was the variety of Asian vegetables available – long beans, Chinese eggplant, bitter melon, among others – and mostly sold without signage.

Heart of the City Farmers' Market

Asian vegetable paradise

Heart of the City Farmers' Market

Such vibrant-coloured eggplant

Heart of the City Farmers' Market

Peaches!

We bought some apples, nectarines and peaches for the week, and some focaccia pizza for lunch.

Heart of the City Farmers' Market

Mack enjoys our light lunch

Satisfied, we wandered over to the neighbouring Hayes Valley, past their grand City Hall building and symphony hall. The shops were lovely to browse, but given that the first pair of shoes I picked up cost over $400, I knew we would only be window shopping.

San Francisco

We’re not in Canada anymore

We did stumble upon Paulette Macarons in the neighbourhood though, completely by accident. Valerie had recommended the place, a charming pastel-coloured boutique offering more than a dozen flavours of macarons.

Paulette

Paulette Macarons (loved the macaron artwork)

We tried the coffee and coconut ($1.60 each). They were Mack’s first macarons – he was surprised that they were not cloyingly sweet. Each had that intense burst of flavour, all contained inside a delicate yet punchy meringue shell, indicative of perfect execution.

Paulette

Mack with his first macaron!

After returning to our hotel to freshen up for dinner, we headed out on foot to our dinner destination. We walked through Chinatown, past what I dubbed “peep show row” on Broadway, and arrived at Fog City Diner, located near Pier 27.

Fog City Diner

Fog City Diner

Fog City Diner was billed, by Chowhound and others, as a “quintessential” San Francisco diner because of their food. But outfitted like a retro train car, with neon lights, cozy booths, and a long wooden bar, we could see how the decor reflected SF as well – appealing to tourists, but not over the top.

Fog City Diner

Interior

Once we got over the hump of being seated (it took about ten minutes or so; the wait staff were being run ragged), it was smooth sailing. We passed over what we probably should have ordered (their cioppino), and instead, opted for what would hit the spot.

The macaroni and cheese ($10) did just that, even if it was singlehandedly the richest we’d ever tried – it was essentially cheese fondue with noodles.

Fog City Diner

Mac ‘n’ cheese

The fish and chips ($17)  were a little less successful, mostly due to the amount of grease still simmering on the freshly fried fish, but I enjoyed the plate nonetheless.

Fog City Diner

Fish and chips

Mack’s 1/2 pound burger ($20 with fixings) was an epic creation, enhanced with mushrooms, applewood smoked bacon and a fried egg, but was similarly greasy. It was interesting, however, that our server asked Mack how he wanted his burger done –  something we never come across in Edmonton.

Fog City Diner

Burger

It was a good way to end our first day in San Francisco, and would be something of a pattern during our trip – filling up on food, then walking it off en route to our hotel. All hail a pedestrian-friendly city!